Mon, 22 July 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
New opportunities: strengthening UK & EU relationships once more Partner content
By Christina Georgaki
Press releases

Diplomacy and development are vital parts of strengthening our national security

| PA Images

6 min read

Unless the Integrated Review changes course, its analysis of modern threats will be half-complete and the resulting strategy to tackle them half-baked.

When the Government announced its review of diplomacy, development and defence policy in December, even the worst Whitehall pessimist couldn’t have predicted that – within weeks – the three departments of government responsible would be facing the unprecedented tests triggered by coronavirus.

Ben Wallace didn’t envisage his first major troop deployment being in support of NHS crisis teams. Nor was Anne-Marie Trevelyan expecting the coming humanitarian crisis as the pandemic spreads to the poorest countries.

As for Dominic Raab, even his wide-ranging role couldn’t have prepared him for his immersion in the desperate plight facing a million British nationals, stranded after the imposition of overseas travel bans. 

Nevertheless, we must assume that plans for the Integrated Review, the brainchild of Dominic Cummings and Mark Sedwill, remain as briefed to the media ahead of December’s Queen’s Speech. 

First, that briefing suggested a broad but very security-focused assessment of current work and expenditure across the three policy areas. No 10 summed up the review’s purpose as “making the best use of spending to ensure all our security forces are ahead of hostile powers, terrorists and organised crime”.

“Ahead” is a telling word, indicating an arms race mentality, where our enemies’ capacity to harm us is constantly increasing, and our job is to foil their threats and launch more advanced attacks of our own. A vital objective indeed, but is it the sum total of what our “three Ds” approach is meant to achieve?

Second, it was briefed that Cummings and Sedwill saw the review as a chance to drive down defence procurement costs, and perhaps – reading between the lines – to refocus spending on more modern security threats.

And finally, almost in passing, it was briefed that plans were again afoot to put the Department for International Development – and more importantly, its budget – under Foreign Office control.

When Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he referred with relish to smashing the jam jars when it came to DfID, ending the funding of “softer” development projects, and directing all expenditure instead to key diplomatic and security priorities, including tackling Jihadist terrorism.

So while that briefing on DfID’s future might have sounded like a simple sop for the right-wing media, it actually fit the overall strategy to reorient all three Ds activity around security objectives.

So, writing on behalf of the Labour party, and based on what we know about the Government’s plans for this review, will they have our support? 

Diplomacy and development can advance our interests in areas that defence and security never touches

In a spirit of consensus, assuming the cost-benefit analysis factors in the protection of jobs in our steel and ship-building industries, we will back Cummings and Sedwill when they review defence procurement costs, a job ignored after Philip Hammond left the MoD in 2014.

However, beyond that, theirs is a backward-looking vision, which fails even when judged on its own narrow terms of strengthening our national security.

Take the example of Iran. After decades of isolation, Iran came to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme, not because of western threats, or a rating of its chances in conflict, but thanks to painstaking diplomacy, and appeals to its economic self-interest.

And it remains the case that only diplomacy will get the Iran nuclear deal back on track, and open the door for discussion around the other security threats that Iran poses to western interests in the region.

In the case of Iran, rather than reviewing our activity to ensure we are “ahead” of this “hostile power”, I’d prefer to invest in the diplomacy that was slowly discouraging it from that hostility, and can do so again if given a chance. 

Take a less obvious example: Ethiopia. When Johnson talked about smashing jam jars, he was reacting to controversy over DfID’s funding of Yegna, popular champions of female empowerment dubbed “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls” by our furious right-wing press.

Their funding was cancelled, but they kept growing, and are cited as one of the factors leading to the “feminisation” of Ethiopian politics, as also seen in the election of reformist female president Sahle-Work Zewde.

Do securocrats like Cummings and Sedwill look at the problems besetting the Horn of Africa, particularly Jihadist terrorism, and wonder what – by contrast – explains an Ethiopia scarred for decades by war and poverty bucking the trend? 

If they do, they might better understand the role of development, including in strengthening security.

They might even understand that diplomacy and development can advance our interests in areas that defence and security never touches, including global efforts to tackle climate change or forced mass migration, and mitigate their effects.

I certainly hope so. Because unless this review deals with those kinds of issues and responses, then its analysis of modern threats will be only half-complete and the resulting strategy to tackle them totally half-baked.

That brings us back to coronavirus, not just because deadly pandemic outbreaks must be added to that list of modern threats, but because their very omission reveals the inadequacy of the Government’s approach.

Theirs is a review of the purpose behind our three Ds work, which deals entirely with threats from traditional enemies – “hostile powers, terrorists and organised crime” – and proposes the entirely one-dimensional solutions of staying one step ahead of those threats, in terms of our defences and our ability to strike first.

Even if Cummings and Sedwill challenge orthodoxies by focusing on new forms of warfare, their narrow analysis of “threats” and “solutions” looks anachronistic when facing the short- and medium-term risks posed by coronavirus and climate change.

It may pain them to admit it, but the Foreign Office and DfID have the lion’s share to offer when it comes to dealing with threats like those, and simply using them to fund the war on Jihadism is short-sighted at best.

What the Government must instead do is come back in a few months’ time, and ask themselves: in a post-coronavirus world, is it our current approach to the three Ds that looks out of date, or our planned approach to this review? 

If they are honest, they already know the answer.


Emily Thornberry is Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and shadow foreign secretary

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.


Foreign affairs